One is an undrafted career minor leaguer who was called up for the last game of the regular season. One was released from traning camp only to be called up halfway through the season. One was claimed off of waivers from the Florida Panthers shortly before the season started. But together, the trio of Stephen Gionta, Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter has given the New Jersey Devils their steadiest line of the postseason. While coach Peter DeBoer has shuffled the top three lines, the fourth line has been kept together every game, providing energy and timely scoring.
The three have kept their game simple and, on a team that relies on a fantastic forecheck to win games, have been the best at keeping pressure on the opposing defense. They aren’t liabilities either as they all have a positive plus-minus rating and they don’t take bad penalties. Bernier is third on the team with 43 hits despite playing just 10:43 a night and Carter has the highest shooting percentage of any Devil with more than 10 shots (3 for 3, 23.1%).
They have scored several big goals in these playoffs and the Devils are 7-1 when a member of the line records a point. Carter had the game-winning goal in Game 1 against Florida, Bernier scored the opening goal in Game 6 when they were down 3-2 in the series and Gionta scored the Devils’ second goal in Game 7. They didn’t put up many points against Philadelphia, but the team was so dominating, the fourth line had no need to step up.
Then in the conference final, Carter tied Game 2 at two as the Devils even the series at one and in Game 5 Gionta opened the scoring then assisted on Carter’s game-winning goal.
They have combined for eight goals and 16 points in 17 playoff games. During the entire regular season, they had six goals and 15 points, though to be fair Gionta only played one game. In fact, he has played more games during this playoff run (17) than he has in the regular season in his career (13). He’s perhaps the most surprising player on the line as Bernier (417 games) and Carter (254 games) at least have experience in the NHL; Carter even has a Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007.
But Gionta, who has 56 goals and 135 points in 360 games over the past six seasons for the Devils’ American League affiliate, is proving he deserves an extended shot in the NHL. His only other experience was a 12-game call up last season in which he was held pointless and was a minus-3. But now he’s a key cog on a team only one win away from returning to the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 2003. Tal Pinchevsky of NHL.com writes:
(Patience is) finally paying off for Stephen Gionta, who after six seasons with their American Hockey League team has contributed to the Devils’ run to the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Rangers.
Described as undersized, undrafted and an underdog, Gionta tried to be undaunted when he got his first shot in New Jersey last season. But in a 12-game NHL run he failed to register a point, and in his last game, a Dec. 4, 2010 loss in Philadelphia, he played only five shifts before being sent back to Albany. Entering this season, Gionta was looking for another shot.
It took the entire season, but the speedy forward finally got that shot — in the Devils’ final regular-season game, against Ottawa. That day, after scoring his first NHL goal — the eventual game-winner — Gionta’s second chance in the NHL already was looking better than the first.
He and the rest of the Devils have a real shot at the Stanley Cup and it’s not like the fourth line is just watching everything happen while keeping the bench warm. Should the Devils defeat the Rangers and take on the Los Angeles Kings for the Stanley Cup, Gionta, Bernier and Carter will continue to play a big role. And the way they continue to make an impact playing on the fourth line, it’s unlikely any of them will have to worry about waivers or long bus rides again next season.